By Paul Goble
Given the deterioration of the Russian economy, working class protests are increasing while middle class ones ebb, a development that makes it likely that the Kremlin will look back at the 2011-2012 demonstrations with a certain “nostalgia” given the difficulties it is likely to face in the future, according to Levada Center sociologist Denis Volkov.
In an interview in today’s “Novaya gazeta,” Volkov says that as the economy has deteriorated, ever more people are protesting. Most of them are doing so locally and without apparent connections to others and explicitly in a “non-political” way. But both of those things are deceptive, he suggests (novayagazeta.ru/politics/74627.html).
On the one hand, Russian workers are protesting for the same reasons even if they are not doing so as a mass movement. That could change quickly in the event of a real crisis. And on the other, the claims of participants that they are not engaged in politics is a tactic rather than a reflection of reality: they know that these economic problems have only political solutions.
In addition, Volkov suggests, the notion of “good tsar and bad boyars” which the Kremlin tries to promote only works up to a point. Ever more economic protests that appeal directly to Putin are usually cited as evidence of the strength of these views, but they may have the effect of undercutting “the good tsar” if he can’t solve their problems.
Volkov points out that protest attitudes reflect both the level of people’s satisfaction with their lives and the level of legitimacy of the authorities. Mass protests under Putin have occurred precisely when his support fell to 60 percent, 2005 and 2011.
The middle class protests of the latter year, the sociologist continues, have faded because members of that class have become “tired” of the political system, viewing it as a failure. And that together with the actions of the government has led to the demise of umbrella groups and the division of that protest movement into small groups.
“Under certain conditions,” Volkov says, the current working class protests “could take the same forms we observed in 2010 in the Manezh square. But this will already depend on the participation of civic organizations,” who are under pressure from the regime. As a result, the protests ahead are likely to be more uncontrolled and even violent.
The Kremlin didn’t realize how lucky it was that in 2011, there were “responsible people” at the head of the demonstrations, people like Boris Nemtsov “did not allow the storming of the Kremlin which could have ended with unknown consequences.” Now, there aren’t analogous leaders and organizations. That means “next time could be different.”
And that time may come sooner than many expect: all the measures of trust in leaders are going down, including in Putin. While the regime is preparing to resist, that may matter less than many think because the problem in the case of Russia is that “the system itself forces people who earlier were indifferent to go out into the street” to have any hope of solving their problems.
Stability in Russia “ended with the crisis in 2009,” Volkov says, and “while it is impossible to speak about the creation of a massive civic movement for democracy,” the situation today is fundamentally different than in was a decade ago. Networks are being created, activists are emerging, and local deputies are getting involved.
Up to now, this is taking place mostly in the big cities, but things are spreading, and the regime may even now becoming nostalgic about the protests it worried about so much five years ago.